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Survey: U.S. Cities Report Increase in Climate Change Impacts, Lag Global Cities in Planning

by Don Knapp

Local governments are preparing for increased natural disasters and other threats, but their efforts are hampered by a lack of resources and other challenges, according to a first-ever survey conducted by MIT in partnership with ICLEI

Cities in the United States and worldwide report that they are experiencing a range of often destructive impacts they attribute to a changing climate, and are taking actions to prepare and adapt to these changes, according to a new survey from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in partnership with ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability. But climate adaptation planning is less of a priority for U.S. local governments than their non-U.S. counterparts.

The survey represents the responses of 468 cities worldwide —all members of ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability – with 298 of these from the U.S. The survey is the first effort of its kind to systematically investigate cities’ progress and challenges in climate adaptation planning.

Download the Survey (pdf)

“Often we hear about the climate adaptation initiatives of one or two large cities in the U.S.,” said JoAnn Carmin, the survey author and Associate Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at MIT. “The survey shows that a wide range of cities are thinking about how they can be prepared for the future. While most cities are at the very earliest stages of planning, they are talking across departments, forging relationships with local universities, and establishing multi-stakeholder task forces and commissions in order to better understand how they can foster resilience in the long term.”

Results on U.S. Cities and Climate Adaptation

Key findings about U.S. cities identified by the survey include:

  • 74% of U.S. cities have perceived changes in the climate, including increased storm intensity (31%), higher temperatures (30%) and more precipitation (28%).
  • 59% of U.S. cities are pursuing adaptation planning, compared to 68% worldwide. The U.S. had the lowest percentage for any region, with Latin American and Canadian cities having the highest (95% and 92% respectively).
  • 13% of U.S. cities have completed an assessment of their vulnerabilities and risks, compared to 19% globally. Again, U.S. cities were the least active in this area, while Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada were the most active.
  • The top ranked impacts and issues identified by cities that conducted assessments were increased stormwater runoff (72%), changes in electricity demand (42%), loss of natural systems (39%), and coastal erosion (36%). Other issues that ranked closely behind were loss of economic revenue, drought, and solid waste management.


Impacts Anticipated as a Result of Climate Change

Click for larger view of graph results on cities' perceptions of anticipated climate change impacts.


Benefits of Adaptation

Cities emphasized that adaptation helps them be prepared for the future and taking action demonstrates leadership. Cities also noted that they believe it will advance community livability, reduce impacts from natural hazards, and improve health conditions.

Global Leaders on Adaptation

While many U.S. cities are taking action to prepare for climate change impacts, as a whole their efforts still lag relative to cities elsewhere, particularly those in Canada, Europe, and Latin America. “Many cities in the U.S. are exploring ways they can pursue adaptation in light of the changes they are experiencing or the data that is readily available from regional studies,” said Carmin. “However, given the politicized views of climate change in this country, it seems that some cities are emphasizing risk management—that way they can get on with the important tasks of reducing risk and safeguarding local residents and municipal assets.”

Challenges Cities Face

Cities in the U.S. and worldwide also noted critical challenges they are encountering in proceeding with climate adaptation planning. The highest ranked challenges are as follows:

  • Approximately 95% of U.S. cities report that securing funding for adaptation is a challenge. Only Latin American cities rate this challenge as highly.
  • Furthermore, 36% of U.S. cities, the highest rate globally, reported that the federal government does not understand the realities that they face with respect to adaptation.
  • Communicating the need for adaptation to and gaining support for adaptation from elected officials was highly rated globally and in the U.S.

“U.S. cities continue to show leadership on climate change,” said Brian Holland, ICLEI USA Climate Programs Director. “But this survey makes it clear that local governments need more federal and state support to accelerate their efforts. It also points to the need for a broader national dialogue about the serious climate impacts our communities face, including severe storms, floods, droughts, and sea-level rise. Now is the time for frank discussions about how we can prepare and become more resilient in the face of these challenges.”

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